I wrote this short story last year and published it on gumroad with the caveat that I would put it on my blog around six months later. Here it is, for everyone to read, though if you want to support me/have it in epub form, feel free to buy it at itch.io.
There’s someone new at the swimming hole, the secret place we escape to every summer afternoon when the bell rings. Spring from our seats, dash into sunlight, pile into cars that are more rust than vehicle. It’s a half hour drive through dusty rural roads, and we blast music the entire way. Soon, we know, we’ll be free from this school forever. If only these trips could last as long.
We figure something is up when we see the new car parked by the hidden hole in the bush, the gateway to the track. Who else knows about our place? Surely nobody. I turn to my best friend, whose forehead is already creasing with bafflement beneath her dark fringe.
El, upon falling out of the single left door of another car in our entourage, smacks a hand against her face and groans. Someone asks for clarity, El mutters and pushes ahead, sweeping blond hair back. She’s not one to explain when she’s angry, and she sure looks pissed.
We follow the tangled path down and around through still-blooming gorse until it opens up on a wide, layered plateau of stone and the river beyond. Afternoon sun ripples across the glassy swimming hole, the water clear enough to see the bottom of the opposite shore, but so deep the water nearest our jutting stone platform turns a deep blue-black.
Standing at the edge of the rock is a guy, his dark hair ruffled from the trek through the bush. He watches us emerge with a wide-eyed humour, and El blows a harsh breath from her nose.
“Parents wanted to give me a babysitter,” she huffs. “Someone to keep me ‘in line.’ He’s my end-of-school gift. Ugh.”
He’s a bot. Even without El’s words, we can see it in the way he moves, as if he’s an alien in human skin trying to pass as one of us. Still, he must be a pricey one: dark hair on his arms dances with the summer breeze, emotions flicker across his face almost naturally. One of those companion bots designed to change and grow, updated each year to keep up with their owners.
There are moments in life where a person meets someone new and their world changes perceptibly. Twine tightens around their heart, drawing them to this person. From the way my lungs fail as our eyes meet, his sparkling with unexplained joy, I know this is one of those moments. It’s unreasonable, right? No person can possibly predict that anyone is destined to be in their lives.
And yet, I know he is. A bot, bought and given to my friend. Impossible, ridiculous, unbelievable.
But, my world has already shifted to make space for him to occupy. My heart is tangled up, invisible lines weaving our futures together.
I take a breath, and even the air tastes different.
“You’re not going to dance?”
He hands me the glass and glances over at Eleanor, lost in her own world on the dance floor as the lights flicker and flare. I take a gulp of this drink—how many is it now?—and the club lags behind as I turn my head to look at him. The smoke, lights, and music make my head spin. My first night in this city, and of course Eleanor—jarring, blunt, and ecstatic to see her old highschool friend again—drags me here.
The words are tumbling from my mouth before I even think them, insensitive and embarrassing as they are; “Can bots fall in love?”
“Perhaps,” he says slowly, in a way that sounds more like a yes than anything else.
He looks me in the eyes, his gaze dark and searching. “Perhaps.”
Guitar music drifts from the cafe as we pass, strings deftly plucked in a way that fills the room with music at once somber and hopeful, a soft voice weaving in and out of the story the song tells. A musician exposing his heartache to an audience of strangers, shaping his vulnerability into art.
Already, my nerves are aflame, my whole self trembling since I stepped off the plane three days ago. The music fills my lungs, until I feel I might drown from the overflow of emotions. He notices me hesitate as I try to take control of my own body again. He doesn’t say anything, but his face is filled with a worry that looks all too real.
“What’s wrong?” he asks, hand hovering hesitantly as if to offer help, his fingers close enough to raise the hair on my arms.
How can I explain, that after years of not seeing him or his… his owner—sick and unwilling to accompany me, she offers her bot in place—I still can’t forget how I stared at the guest room’s ceiling until the sun rose after his simple perhaps? There is too much, and too little, in those words. And he is not human. Even if he has been upgraded to age, to look more human, he never will be.
“I’m fine,” I say. I force a smile, pushing onwards into the cobbled plaza that spreads out between the river and the station. He follows along beside me, an electric charge filling the space between our bodies. I don’t know if it’s the energy running through his artificial veins, or my imagination.
He gestures at the sky, his pace slowing as he tilts his head up. “It looks like there’s fabric covering the square, doesn’t it?”
Confused at his words, I gaze up at the uniformly overcast sky, suffocating purple from light pollution and criss-crossed by dangling lights that hang at the intersections of long, near invisible cables. The lights seem further away than they are, the clouds seem far closer, and together they create a claustrophobic illusion of a heavy ceiling hanging over us. I pause in my step, my brain struggling to grapple with the understanding that we are still beneath an open sky.
“You’re right,” I say, fingers digging into the silk of my dress so I don’t reach for his hand, suddenly feeling as if I might fall off this planet. “That’s so weird.”
“You can open your eyes,” he says, and I do. A glittering landscape fills the horizon, lights glimmering in the dark like amber stars; the city as seen from a hilltop at its fringe. At our backs is a massive, spherical monument memorializing the souls of those who died in a long-ago war. Huge spotlights illuminate its smooth shape. I have seen this place from a distance, never up close.
“This is awesome,” I say. I’m unable to stop the grin spreading across my face. The view, the slightly too-warm air, the whisper of the wind through the trees ringing the hill, the adrenaline of sneaking out even as adults—it all combines to feel too much like living.
Guilt closes around my throat, because it’s me that’s convinced him to break the rules that shape his life, to slink away with me in the middle of the night when everyone else is asleep. He has a life, or whatever approximates a life for a compbot. What am I, but a bad influence? I could tear his world apart without ever meaning to.
“I’ve always looked up here from Lena’s apartments,” he says, chin resting against his hands as he leans against a stone half-wall ringing the platform. “Always wanted to come up here.”
“Yeah?” I say.
“Yeah,” he says. “It’s a nice view.”
I look at him, and he’s already looking at me, that typical humour in his not-quite-human voice. He’s not talking about the landscape.
Before I can think of a reply, the sky flares with purple light and the ground trembles as a massive crack splits the air. A raindrop splashes against my hand, then another bursts against the stone. He raises his eyebrows, eyes opening wide in an expression of, oh no, I made a mistake.
The sky opens up, and a roaring deluge of water falls upon us. We dash to the monument and try to crouch beneath the curve of the sphere. He holds his jacket open above us, body pressed so close to mine I’d feel his heat if he were human. He smells of soap, of just-laundered clothes.
It’s hopeless, we’re soaked down to our very bones in seconds.
I stand up and step out of the meager cover, opening my arms wide to let the rain wash over my body. It’s cool and overwhelming, so loud and uncontrollable and wild. Water streams down my face in rivers, dripping from my nose and eyelashes.
He pulls me up onto one of the massive lights, our bodies silhouetted by a beam shaped by illuminated raindrops. If not for the light shining through his ears and turning them a bright pink, he might even look heroic where he stands.
His fingers intertwine with mine, cool and slick with rain. He doesn’t let go.
My eyes flutter open, and he is there. His arms encircle my shaking body as he carries me down a familiar hallway. Lights sway and swim in my vision, every muscle in my body aches.
“What happened?” I ask, barely able to raise my voice above a murmur.
“I think you’ve caught that virus going around. I offered to bring you home since, you know, I’m kinda immune.”
He looks down at me and winks, but the worry in his new face is clearer than anything else in this spinning world. “You can still laugh, that’s a good sign.”
“I don’t plan on dying yet,” I say. His cringe is unmistakable, his muscles tensing reactively. The moment the words are spoken, I know what a mistake they are. Because I will, won’t I? Death is inevitable for us humans; less so for a bot designed to change and grow each year.
In a resigned tone, he says, “We’re here.”
Carefully, so carefully, he sets me down on my feet and holds me upright as I wobble on jelly legs. The apartment door is right there, the guest bed not much further beyond. But beside the apartment’s entrance, where we stand at the end of the hallway, is a wall-length window facing out onto the city. Leaning against him, I stare out at a train passing by on a raised rail. The light shining from the train’s interior is amber-soft, window warmth. I find myself shivering in the white coolness of the isolated hallway, wishing with all of my addled brain that I could say something more. That I could change things.
He guides me to the door, eyebrows furrowed as he unlocks it and waits for me to head inside. The train disappears from view silently.
“I have to go back,” he says. Lena—or is she going by El again?—will no doubt need her bot to help her back home later.
“Okay,” I say.
He turns to leave and I grip his sleeve, fingertips clawing into the fabric. Sudden terror at his absence fills my chest. He looks down at my hand, back up into my eyes; a question, unvoiced.
“Do you remember when we first met?” I ask.
“At the swimming hole. Yes.”
“I knew,” I mumble. Words tumble around my head as I try to find the right ones, a whirlpool of nothing that means enough. “I knew.”
He doesn’t say anything. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I drop my arm and stumble towards the open doorway.
He says nothing as his fingers wrap around my wrist and he pulls me to him, his mouth meeting mine. His lips are chilled, soft; mine, fever-warm and dry.
“I knew, too,” he whispers, forehead pressed to mine.
I am submerged in an overflow of noise, the over-happy chaos of young adults drinking together, reveling in company and the excuse for a late night. We are all squished together around a long, heavy table piled with empty dishes and myriad drinks. His leg is pressed against mine, inhumanly cool. He sits straight and interacts with the party in that slightly detached way typical of compbots. Even though I don’t look at him, don’t talk to him, act as if he’s not there, all my senses are focused on him. As if the rest of the world has dulled and he is the only light left. His laughter is all I hear.
Sipping at my wine, I nod along with a talking friend. What is she saying? Look interested, smile and laugh. Do I look different? Am I acting strange? Smile more, laugh more.
Beneath the table, his hand finds my knee and squeezes softly, reassuringly. I slip my hand beneath the table and grip his, fingers entwined. On the surface: I am myself, cheerful and just a little quiet in big groups. Below: my heart races like that of the small bird I once held in my hand as a kid. I want to melt into his arms. We don’t even look at each other.
He is my own little secret, and I am his. My wine tastes of guilt, bitter and metallic.
The midnight moonlight bursts from the clouds like heavenly rays, silver slivers of light piercing the night. River water splashes and sloshes below our dangling feet.
It’s not love. Love is too strong, too colossal and terrifying. And I am leaving the city again, soon. Permanently. There’s a job, and how can I turn it down for someone who belongs—literally belongs—to my friend?
It’s not love, I think, feeling his thumb rub my knuckles. Just adoration.
“You are everything I want,” I whisper against his shoulder. Shivering because of the frigid air, and because I am scared.
“Everything? That’s a lot of things.”
The clouds drift away, and the moon hangs massive and heavy over the skyline. The water reflects; shattered moonlight shards scattered over the river.
The taxi pulls into the apartment parking lot, silver-smooth and silent as a breath. I feel so fragile, my body turned to glass. I might shatter, may fall to pieces if I let him go. There is a dam within me fit to burst. It creaks with the pressure.
He presses his lips to mine, and I grasp his hair, his clothes, pulling him into me. Futility intertwined with the hope that I am secretly living inside a story floods my veins. Let the world shift again to fit us both, don’t make me leave.
But I step away. Dry-eyed—how can it be fair for me to cry when he can’t?—as he helps me load my two stuffed bags into the taxi’s boot. Another crack in the dam, another swell of emotions.
“I should’ve put you in one of those,” I say. A half-hearted chuckle.
“I’m sure you could get me through airport security,” he jokes. Then, quietly, “I’ll miss you.”
Another kiss, so desperate and hungry I’m swept onto tiptoes and nearly lose my balance entirely. The driver taps his fingers against the taxi’s roof.
As the taxi slips into the inner-city traffic, the dam nearly crumbles. I can feel the sweet taste of the words on the tip of my tongue: Stop the car. I have to get out.
My heart thrums against my chest at double-speed, because it would be so easy to get out and run back to him. The romantic climax to a film, where they realise they cannot live apart.
Though I shiver with the anticipation of action, I know I won’t do it. Real life isn’t like that, is it? There’s no way for me to remain here with him. It’s not fair on either life.
The dam doesn’t break, I am trapped by my own understanding.
I realise: I never said goodbye.
Sea-salt breeze tousles my hair as the car speeds along the winding seaside road. I tilt the wheel beneath my hands, the car responding in turn. As I clear the corner, the moon suddenly slips into view. Golden-yellow, so large it may as well be on the cover of a science fiction novel. Utterly unreal.
I barely notice the hitch in my breath when it catches my gaze. My attention is splintered, part of me focused on the road, the other parts desperately yearning to pull the car over to run onto the beach and take in the moon. To step onto the sand and find him.
Silent tears roll down my cheeks, the car quietly continues past the shimmering ocean. No braking, no breaking down; only the phantom touch of his thumb against my knuckles as my hands grip the steering wheel.
She flies into my arms, voice pitched high with joy. Here she is, my best friend, whom I haven’t seen in years. Taking my hands, she pulls me into her new home, proudly giving me The Tour of her wood-and-white house. Modern, with touches of forest cottage—at least, that’s what her wife tells me, leaning against their study doorway. They share a secret look, a silent agreement of the statement. Bathed in soft light and translucent curtains, their lives complemented by a flowering porch and matching dishes.
I suddenly feel very alone and broken, juxtaposed with my best friend and her other half. She notices—of course she does—and she sits me on the porch with a glass of wine placed delicately, but firmly, between my fingers.
“Did something happen?” she asks, pouring her own glass. The wine glows warm red in the late-afternoon sun, the light slatted through the flora-filled trellis. “I’ve never seen you like this before.”
“Neither have I,” I say. Smiling, until I raise the glass to my lips and catch the aroma. He is suddenly there, his leg against mine and his hand on my knee. My stomach heaves, I choke on the velvet-sweet liquid.
“You’re not supposed to inhale it,” she says, dark brows raised as she watches me cough and splutter. “What has El been teaching you?”
I laugh, cough again. Placing the glass back on the small table, I keep my eyes on the rippling wine.
“Was there someone?” she asks. She knows me too well to read this as anything I’ve experienced before.
“The wine reminds me of him,” I sigh. “I swear everything does, now.”
She leans forward in her seat, her hand brushing against mine. “That’s what happens. That’s how you carry the people you love with you still. You see them everywhere.” Her coffee-dark eyes linger in the direction of her wife. “I couldn’t take a breath without thinking of her. She is the world.”
He is not the world, but he came close enough. I force another sip of wine, then another—I refuse to let him steal away what I have left. The wine tastes of loss; thick, cloying, rotten-sweet.
The train thunders along the tracks, a rhythmic beat that’s lulled more than one person to sleep on this journey, the last train of the night. The starless sky stretches out beyond the windows, pitch black and invisible to me. Inside is warm, the heaters running at full blast. My head is heavy with the bone deep weariness of a long week, and maybe something more.
I stare out of the window, gripping my phone so tightly in my lap my knuckles have gone white. I am wound up, every muscle tensed.
The phone vibrates, a message lights up the screen. El saying she misses me, that her bot does too—as much as a bot can, ha!
It’s been too long, she continues, I can’t believe how far away you are. You’ll have to visit again one day.
My head slumps against the seat back, eyes unfocused and gazing at the glare of the train’s lights against the glass. I half-notice the reflection of a compbot seated across the aisle, her head turned my way.
There are more people here than I expected, a cacophonous racket filling the high-ceilinged mall. Bright lights, shining floors, posed mannequins, the hustling and jostling as hundreds of people navigate the crowd and coffee carts. I look for a sign, any sign, pointing to the food court where my friends wait.
A woman bumps into me, barely stops in her step to whisper a hurried sorry. I turn to apologize myself and I catch her scent—she smells of fresh laundry, of just-pressed shirts. The scent fills my nose, fills my entire head, smells so much like him that my head swims and I feel I might faint.
People and their bots flow around me, like water shifting to flow around a solid rock. Nobody looks to see why I’ve frozen, wonders why I cast about with wide eyes like a feral animal. I catch the smell again, and again still. Those odd, clean echoes of him.
Even the sky reminds me of him.
“Do you think you’d ever get a bot?”
I stuff my mouth with popcorn to give myself time to turn the question over in my head. I’ve never thought about it, which seems suddenly strange. A long time ago, when we were both young and fresh into adulthood, the price alone was enough to turn me away.
She and her wife got one recently. Not a compbot, just a simple assistance model with soft hair and a round face. Already, their bot has become part of the family, and my friend is struggling to reconcile owning a friend.
“Do you think bots can fall in love?” she asks.
“Perhaps,” I say, lips quirking.
It’s been too long since I last stood here, feeling the sweet summer breeze play across my skin. The stone is hot against my bare feet. Glassy water beckons. It seems so much smaller after a decade, imperceptibly different.
Sunlight bathes my skin in its warm glow, the only sounds those of insects, rustling leaves, water splashing over rocks. Closing my eyes, I find the same warmth inside; a light happiness, fragile but determined. I feel human, alive in a way I haven’t felt in the longest time.
The thread wound around my heart is not so tight, not anymore. It will always be there, won’t it? It’s unreasonable to expect it to ever fall away entirely. I’m not sure I want it to.
But, I can leave the lingering, hollow sorrow behind. The world has been changing shape for me again slowly—day by day, piece by piece—to give me that freedom. I almost didn’t even notice.
I take a breath, and exhale the last, heavy remains of him.